Research directions for interorganizational collaboration

As part of a project on collaboration in the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) with my colleague Natalie Nelson-Marsh, I’ve been reviewing the research literature on interorganizational collaborations (IOCs). These organizations occur across sectors and come in various structures and sizes, having in common that they form mostly due to contingencies, such as unexpected events or a complicated or complex situation that can’t be addressed by a single organization.

Most of the early literature in the 1980s and 1990s focused on two major issues. First, identifying the specifications of an IOC in terms of its defining structures and processes. Second, the conditions under which IOCs tended to form. Not surprisingly, research investigated the inputs/conditions and outputs of IOCs, notably research into membership and shared purpose. Later work extended this research by turning to empirical study of IOCs themselves and identifying communication elements or processes that common to different IOCs.  Heath (2007), for example studies the significance of the “dialogic moment”. Hardy, Lawrence and Grant (2005) identify key discursive forms that structure a collaborative.  And Koschmann (2007) explores how an IOC can sustain its membership through collective identity.

As noted by these and every other researcher in this area, IOCs are key to organizing in the 21st century. I think this is absolutely true. I can see the very recent and dramatic rise in crowdfunded, crowdsourced, Just-In-Time business ventures as yet another contribution to this phenomenon (think Kickstarter). And so what I would hate to have happen is that we as researchers sediment or solidify too early what we understand to be IOCs. In other words, to settle on the construct too quickly. There are some assertions made in the early literature that run the risk of being taken now as assumptions, and now is the time to ask some more systematic questions. Here are some of the questions I think would be valuable for research to explore:

  • What is the conceptual relationship between collaborations as organizational forms (I’ll call “collaboratives” for clarity) and collaboration as an interactional process? Must collaboratives be governed collaboratively?
  • What is the role of self-reflection as being part of the organization? Must IOCs be intentional?
  • Is there an element of stewardship in the member role, either stewardship for the outcome or for the organization itself?
  • What are the individual strategic actions needed to maintain the organization as a collaborative?
  • What is the role of power and politics in collaboratives? Current research often holds that collaboratives are nonhierarchical (or at least that power difference is controlled in some way, as by a facilitator). But if we assume power to be an inherent part of organizing, what is the nature of it in in self-governing collaboratives?

Most central to my interest is in better understanding the communicative processes that constitute IOCs.  To the extent that “collaboration” as a process should be understood to be characterized by possibility, uncertainty, and intentionality, how do the processes in IOCs emerge, how are they sustained, and what role do they play in the ability of the IOC to sustain itself as an organizational form?



Hardy, C., Lawrence, T., & Grant, D. (2005). Discourse and collaboration: The role of conversations and collective identity. Academy of Management Review, 30(1), 58–77. doi:10.2307/20159095

Heath, R. G. (2007). Rethinking community collaboration through a dialogic lens: Creativity, democracy, and diversity in community organizing. Management Communication Quarterly, 21(2), 145–171. doi:10.1177/0893318907306032

Koschmann, M. A. (2012). The Communicative Constitution of Collective Identity in Interorganizational Collaboration. Management Communication Quarterly, 27(1), 61–89. doi:10.1177/0893318912449314

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